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Tasmanian Words: Brushies

Frank Brown writes about brush possums, Tasmania’s outstanding wildlife characters.

Brush possums are the outstanding characters in the Tasmanian bush. The size of a big cat, but with claws that give moggies inferiority complexes, these bright eyed, fearless furballs will go anywhere, yes anywhere, for a feed. They will climb barbwire fences, scramble up steel cables, slide down the chimneys of bush huts, undo zipper closures on backpacks, and squeeze through impossible gaps for anything edible.

Mountain cabin logbooks are full of reports on the activities of Black Pete, a mythical Brushy of huge dimensions, infinite cunning and insatiable appetite. All bush walkers have tales of being raided in the early hours by piratical possums. Unguarded packs have been opened, upended and emptied by these marauding marsupials. But you can’t help liking them. They are inquisitive, appealing, cute, but definitely not cuddly. You would like to pick one up and stroke the soft, beautiful, variegated fur, but it would be at your peril. One swipe from those claws will give you a lot more than a nasty rash.

They will condescend to accept food, any food, from you, and you may be allowed if you are particularly favoured, a quick, light stroke down the back. But no more than that. Teeth and claws will be brought into play with savage speed and effect.

I am talking about wild Brushies of course. Some country kids have had tame ones and these suffer the indignities of being hauled around by the tail, stuffed into prams and baby cots, cuddled at odd angles, all with calm aplomb. As long as they get fed, they will endure quite a lot of innocent abuse. However, occasionally the child needs to be reminded there are limits. A fast nip or even faster swipe of a taloned forepaw is usually enough to drive home the lesson.

Like all bushwalkers, I have had my experiences with the creatures. Not always funny, as loosing a good portion of your tucker miles from the store can be a bit embarrassing. Waking at midnight in a small tent to find king size possum ratting your pack is the stuff of very bad dreams. But, overall, they are my favourite animal.

Many years ago, I took our family to Cradle Mountain National Park for a few days. We had hired one of the cabins and spent the days wandering the paths of that glorious place. The weather had been pleasant and we decided to explore a valley outside the park. We drove out in the early morning and found the place easily. Equipped with daypacks, we strolled through the light scrub, enjoying views, birds and flowers. We even picked a few flowers, something not allowed within the park boundaries. The kids loved it.

Late afternoon, we turned back to the road, piled into the car and headed for our holiday cabin. A couple of miles down the road and we came across two hitchhikers, obviously heading for the park. We crammed them in, no easy process with four adults, two children and two large packs in a Volkswagen Notchback. The pair was from Germany originally, and were working in the Northern Territory. Preferring the cooler climes of Tasmania, they had headed South for their holidays, determined to climb a few mountains. We dropped them off at the camping site, and invited them to our cabin for coffee later that evening. I mentioned in passing that the possums would be coming out of the bush scrounging food at eight o’clock.

After a barbecue tea we were sitting on the steps of our cabin having a quiet family chat when our new acquaintances strolled up. They found a good campsite, eaten well and, best of all, found a shower block. Coffee was prepared and served and we chatted easily. The sun had gone down and in the short twilight, the first possum emerged from the bush.

We had brought a bag of plums with us from town, knowing the Brushies would be in attendance, and knowing how much the kids would enjoy feeding them. This was only the third night, but the gang had got the message. Food! I casually indicated the lead scout waddling up the path. Seconds later another emerged, then another. The kids dashed inside to get the plums, and my wife went to get her camera.

The German gentleman, amidst this burst of activity, consulted his watch. It was exactly eight o’clock.

“You were right” he proclaimed, “They are here at the time you said.”

I have often wondered what he would have said or done if the possums had been late.

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